...a blog by Richard Flowers

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Day 4530: BioShock: Finite


This may be a bit of a departure from the usual PG movie and telly reviews you find on here: an ultraviolent console game.

But this is a game that has won all sorts of awards and much critical praise for the way that it deals with themes of freedom and conformity, American Exceptionalism, racism and white supremacy, religion gone berserk, and the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. All the sorts of things that I bang on about, in fact. Plus LOTS of shooting.

The game I'm talking about is Bioshock: Infinite. And it's actually not very good.

For a game that is supposed to be about the infinity of possible choices, it is incredibly linear.

Oh, there's a decent, interesting story in there, with good plot twists, some telegraphed, others only obvious if you have the stomach to replay the game and pick up on them, and the setting – a floating city called "Columbia" after the spirit of America (Columbia is to the US what Britannia is to the UK) – is remarkable and beautiful, mixing above-the-clouds sunlit American mainstreet with the darker recesses of capitalist exploitation.

And of course it's all too good to be true. You may find yourself cast into the role of Serpent in this new, flying Eden, but as your investigations continue you soon learn that Columbia is a haven for White Supremacists who have made an insane religion out of the Founding Fathers of America (Washington, Franklin and Jefferson, with Lincoln as their Devil figure for freeing all those slaves), and then seceded from the Union after bombing the Boxer Rebellion in China. This comes over as a mash-up of Mormonism and Big Finish's "Minuet in Hell", and that's never a good sign…

The problem, though, is that the game consists of discovering this one plot development at a time, wandering from each plot point to next in strict sequence, shooting, mauling or otherwise magically zapping the usual ever-increasing hosts of bad guys and collecting the usual ammo, health packs and power-ups along the way. Each level, in spite of distractions, backtracks and three-dimensional leaping around, is a pretty straightforward walkthrough from beginning to end with cul-de-sacs off the sides where the collectibles are hidden. There's no option to hop on a skyline and go flying off to explore Columbia the way you want to see it. And there are no consequences to the choices you make along the way.

Phil Hartup writing in the New Statesperkin identifies the problem:

This is what a game as scripted as Bioshock: Infinite comes down to: an interactive movie where the totality of the player capacity for interaction is our old friend, violence.

Now, I'm not here – and neither is Phil – to complain about the sex and violence.

For a start, there isn't any sex. And not really any sexism beyond the first-person character being a man: aside from being set in 1912 America-land, where all the fashions are thoroughly buttoned-up and non-exploitative, there are three main female characters (Elizabeth, the girl you're notionally there to rescue but who turns out to be far more in control that you are; Daisy Fitzroy, leader of the rebel Vox Populi faction; and Rosalind Lutece, who used to be a world-class physicist and now appears to have evolved into one of Sapphire and Steel) who are all characterised as clever, competent, confident women who need your help mostly in the fish/bicycle fashion.

As for the violence, well the initial instance is a bit of a hand-brake turn from a walk in the park contemplating the unpleasantness of miscegenation to sawing off a policeman's head with some kind of hand-held mechanical grapple. But he's not a very nice policeman!

(Sorry! If you're not familiar with the BioShock franchise, the "shock" element is as much to do with the predictably splattery results of abruptly interposing steampunk weaponry with vulnerable human bodies – usually with the excuse that they're "mutants" or in this case "racists" – as it is with the notionally shocking alteration of DNA though what are effectively "magic potions". You can pretty soon pick up a pistol if you want tidier assassination, or the ability to throw fireballs, electricity or the hilarious "Murder of Crows" if you want it even messier.)

The game is very violent – notwithstanding the odd unintentionally comic moment where you are urged to pause between slaughtering Columbia's population of policemen, religious zealots, and mechanically and genetically enhanced warriors, to not murder innocent bystanders because they might turn out to be working for the underground anti-slavery front. If that's not your thing then this really isn't for you.

But Phil is bang on the money about the interactivity.

The big twist of the game – pause for major spoilers – is that your character, Booker de Witt, and the principal villain, Zachary Hale Comstock, the Prophet and Founder of Columbia are... one and the same person, from alternate quantum-state universes, whose lives differ by one crucial choice. Elizabeth, who has the ability to open tears between the many different universes, eventually reveals a multiverse of different universes based on different choices.

So it's either some kind of ironic commentary or a major league missing of the point that the choices you make during the game have so little effect on the outcome.

There are three main explicit onscreen moments where you are asked to make a moral choice:

First, near the start of your visit to Columbia when it becomes clear what sort of people you've found yourself among, you're offered a baseball to throw at a mixed race couple – you have the choice to do so, or to throw it at the sneering compere instead.

Second, as you begin the second stage of the game, having rescued Elizabeth from Monument Island where she was being kept prisoner, you're offered two possible brooches for her to wear – you have to choose a bird or a cage (it don't get less subtle than that).

Third, after a major battle midway through the game, you have crazy General Slate at your mercy, only it turns out he's been trying to provoke you into killing him because he hates what Columbia has become and wants an honourable death – you have the choice to give it to him or spare his life.

Now the outcomes of these choices are – spoilers again – whether you get given a useful piece of kit by one person... or by another person; whether you find the General again and get another chance to shoot him; and, most egregious of all, what brooch Elizabeth wears for the rest of the game. Really!

You see, to me, these three choices ought to be the most important part of the game.

The first, which obviously is a very easy choice to make in the comfort of your Twenty-First Century home, is between the safety of conformity or the danger of taking a stand against something that is wrong.

The second, which since I'm a Liberal is for me the most important, is the choice between control and freedom.

The third, probably the most difficult, is about sacrifice and mercy, because if you spare the General you later find that he's been captured and tortured.

These choices ought to have consequences; it's basic "Choose Your Own Adventure" stuff, and I've been writing "Choose Your Own Adventures" since I discovered "The Warlock of Firetop Mountain" when I was eleven.

All that shooting and frying of the wacky citizenry of Columbia is the equivalent of having to roll the dice every now and then to deal with the wandering monsters; the real meat of the game is choosing the right path through the maze so you can defeat the Warlock at the end.

For example, there's a minor choice at a point shortly after Elizabeth joins you, when you find yourself in a situation where you suspect a trap and can chose to pull your gun or not – not results in you getting heftily stabbed, which really just means you get to wear a bandage for the rest of the game. But it could have been set up that if you pull the gun you avoid damage but Elizabeth trusts and respects you less. Or you let yourself get stabbed and take a permanent reduction in your ability to shoot straight but Elizabeth is more inclined to help you and becomes a more useful ally. So it would be a trade-off. Except it wasn't.

Three binary choices means up to eight possible outcomes, and these really, really should materially alter the direction of the game, even to the point of changing your goals as a character.

Let me explain by way of suggesting how I might have written the final levels and conclusion of the game:

If you choose conformity and control, then you are Comstock, and the last few levels ought to be about you seizing control of the city and of Elizabeth and beginning your reign of terror.

If you choose conformity and freedom, then you are Songbird, Elizabeth's guardian and keeper, and the endgame would see you transformed into the bio-mechanoid and rescuing her and returning her to the tower.

If you choose rebellion and control, then you're Booker the Revolutionary, and your mission becomes to take charge of the Vox Populi and overthrow the Founders, and see Elizabeth gets to Paris.

Finally, only if you choose rebellion and freedom do you get to become Booker the Martyr and complete the game as the version delivered plays out.

Success or failure should probably be, in part, determined by how you answer the third question (and indeed, might be different in the different endings I describe – e.g. if you're Comstock, you should spare him and let him be taken for torture!).

Now the "Choose Your Own Adventure" is a pretty crude format, especially as outlined with only four storylines. But it would still have made for a better game, more replayable with four campaigns for the price of one, but also more in keeping with the many worlds philosophy that the developers seem to want to express.

The earlier BioShock games did have conclusions that at least slightly reflected the choices you made along the way, mainly whether to spare or harvest the "little sisters" who were the basis of the genetic alterations/magic powers in the underwater Randian dystopia of Rapture, and it is a shame that the developers have stepped away from that, in contrast to, say, Batman Arkham City or the Assassins Creed series where, although there is a main linear plot, extensive side missions and enormous open-world environments lead to a far more satisfying feeling of freedom to explore and choose.

If you happen to like shooting tin ducks... or electrocuting them, exploding them, tossing them in the air or flushing them off the side of a city in the sky, then this is great fun and looks magnificent. Along the way it might give you a falsely-reassuring warm feeling that racism was BAD and we're over that now.

But it's far from Infinite.

No comments: